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3 minutes reading time (536 words)

Eleventh chords in jazz and popular music

There is a swath of New York's Catskill Mountains, a two-to-three hour drive from Manhattan, that until recently was euphemistically known as the Borscht Belt. As a teenager I spent my summers playing in dance bands in the area's resort hotels. The predominant clientele were middle-class Russian Jews-one of their favorite dishes, beet borscht, was the source of the area's moniker. 

One of the famous hotels in the Borscht Belt was the Nevele; thinking of this hotel (eleven spelled backwards) reminded me of eleventh chords, the subject of this article.

Jazz (or "fakebook") notation of eleventh chords is somewhat mysterious, and the widely used dominant eleventh chord can be represented by any of three different chord symbols. The dominant eleventh chord adds an eleventh above the root of a dominant ninth chord. 

In common jazz practice, however, the third is often omitted from the dominant 11th chord, even though this omission is not specified in the chord symbol. 

Using "slash" notation, the same chord may also be labeled as a Gm7/C. This nomenclature, frequently used to indicate a non-harmonic bass tone, has the advantage of guaranteeing that the third will be omitted from the chord. 

The same set of notes is accurately represented by a third symbol: C7sus4. This label, like Gm7/C, also ensures that the third will be omitted.  

 All three of these symbols are used interchangeably in jazz fakebooks and leadsheets. Since jazz pianists typically play this chord without the third, I prefer the Gm7/C and C7sus4 notations, as they more accurately reflect common practice.

When the 11th chord is played by the left hand alone, the experienced professional pianist typically omits the root and the third, or the root, third, and ninth. 

Note that the eleventh scale degree is identical to the fourth scale degree (in the key of C the eleventh would be F). In jazz and popular music, 4 is used in a chord symbol only when notating sus4 chords, while 11 is used for all other chord symbols, including dominant and minor chords. 

Major eleventh chords

Major eleventh chords are seldom played in jazz and popular music because their sound is considered by jazz pianists to be unattractive. Play it and see for yourself. 

By contrast, however, a major ninth chord with a raised eleventh is widely used in jazz. This chord is often spelled as a polychord Cone chord on top of another, as in Bm/Cmajor). 

Minor eleventh chords

Even though minor eleventh chords have the quality of polychords Cm/Cm), they are rarely spelled this way. 

Play the following short composition, which demonstrates several minor eleventh chords. Practice this piece several times to become thoroughly familiar with the sound of these chords. 

In the July/August issue we will "extend" this discussion with a similar article about thirteenth chords and the way that they function in jazz and popular music. 

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Chopin's teaching
A survey of current methods: The Music Tree
 

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Piano Magazine is the leading resource for pianists, piano teachers, and piano enthusiasts. We bring you informative, interesting, and inspiring ideas on all aspects of piano teaching, learning, and performing. The official name of Clavier Companion magazine was changed to Piano Magazine in 2019.

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